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Nairobi nightmares

October 28, 2009

Dirty, dangerous and difficult, Nairobi currently beats Jo’burg and Lagos to the title of most violent African city. The city sprawls under a pall of thick, choking smog, visibly added to by every truck, taxi and bus, including ours. The compact business district is cleaner and seems better ordered than many cities, but ringed by chaotic chocker-block roads. The bars and restaurants are lively, with music and plenty of customers, but as darkness falls, the streets empty. We get taxis after dark.

Every Westerner we meet here has some dark tale about robberies or worse. Night buses, we’ve been warned by those who’ve learned the hard way, are infiltrated by stooge passengers, who pull out a gun and demand all your belongings be handed over to a vehicle that draws up next to the bus. Budget trips to the Masai Mara have ended violently, we’ve heard from traumatised backpackers. Tents slashed at night with machetes by gun-toting gangs who steal everything and cut people. Two Western women were raped at one campsite last week; a few days later, the same camp was attacked leaving a man with his neck slashed. In Nairobi, tourists have acid thrown into their faces by robbers, while passers-by do nothing – perhaps too frightened to help. Kidnapping is increasing. For the first time in this 11-month journey, we feel uncomfortable in a country.

It’s a city of vast wealth disparity, peopled by the richest in Africa and seething with some of the poorest. Slums that rival Soweto, with millions living in ghettos that lack water, sanitation, power or basic health facilities. It is here that most of the city’s violence occurs, not on the nicely paved streets where we tourists walk. But hopping on the brightly decorated buses, that on closer inspection are painted with guns and hand-grenades, the noise and press of people here feels more aggressive than elsewhere.

Our guesthouse hosts at the Khweza B&B couldn’t be nicer or more helpful. We are paying more than we can afford to stay here, hoping that physical comfort will allay some of the mental discomfort. The city has a potential to be quite pretty – there are many more trees than other cities, some are in full bloom, miraculously purple-flowered through the grey air. Those who do not scowl or try to con or seduce us with expensive tours, smile in friendship. “Jambo,” we greet each other in Swahili.

One of the biggest differences compared to Ethiopia, is the comparative efficiency of communication. Unlike its northern neighbour, the Kenyan government doesn’t have a stranglehold over the networks, and competition in Kenya has produced a generally better phone service here. We can make calls and they get through! The phone networks here are so good and phones so well-distributed throughout the country that mobiles are used as a fantastic sort of banking system. Called M-Pesa, the prepay mobile system allows a person in one place to buy airtime credit, which can then be transferred to another person somewhere else, who can retrieve cash by selling the credit to a phone operator using a special PIN. It’s a great banking system for people too poor and uncredit-worthy to get a bank account, allowing easy bill-paying, fast money transfer and meaning that instead of keeping savings in the form of livestock that can die or need to be sold to release the cash, they can access as little or as much of their cash as they want.

Internet here is also faster than in Ethiopia, which isn’t saying much, but speeds are still far slower than through most of Asia, despite the new fibre-optic cable. Still, we have managed to upload a few photos and may manage some more, with luck.

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